Book of Pagan Prayerby Ceisiwr Serith
It is you who will be talking to the gods. Be clear. Be careful in how you pray. Take care how you come before the gods. Give them your best. There are many reference books on elaborate pagan rituals but never - until now - a guide to the most basic of practices: prayers and offerings. A Book of Pagan Prayer provides the pagan community a comprehensive and… See more details below
It is you who will be talking to the gods. Be clear. Be careful in how you pray. Take care how you come before the gods. Give them your best. There are many reference books on elaborate pagan rituals but never - until now - a guide to the most basic of practices: prayers and offerings. A Book of Pagan Prayer provides the pagan community a comprehensive and thoughtful selection of prayers - and shows readers how they too can create their own. After an introduction on why to pray, author Ceisiwr Serith explores how to pray through words, posture, dance, and music. He explains how to prepare for and compose prayers, how to address and honor the deities, and how to conclude a prayer. Serith also answers important questions, such as: Why should pagans pray? Should prayers be spontaneous? What are offerings about? Is all this just trying to buy the gods off? Gathered from many traditions - including Celtic, Germanic, Egyptian, Greek, and Zoroastrian - this guide includes nearly 500 sample prayers organized by purpose: for the family and household; times of the day, month, and year; life passages; thanksgiving, grace, and petition; as well as litanies and mantras. Whether offering a blessing, celebrating new life, safeguarding travel, or honoring the seasons, readers will discover timeless pagan prayers for worship, spiritual connection, and personal relationship with the gods.
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BOOK OF PAGAN PRAYER
By Ceisiwr Serith
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2002 Ceisiwr Serith
All rights reserved.
THE ROLE OF PRAYER — YESTERDAY AND TODAY
Those of us who call ourselves Pagans owe a debt to all those who came before us. Before trying to define our own, modern Paganism, therefore, we should find out as much as we can about what the ancient Pagans did. To do that, we'll look at their prayers. Then we can either follow their lead, or, if we choose to be different, we can at least choose from knowledge rather than from ignorance.
Ancient Pagan Prayers
The most reliable sources on how the ancient Pagans prayed are the prayers recorded by the Pagans themselves. There are two types of sources of ancient Pagan prayers, the literary and the epigraphic (the ones that were engraved or drawn on things). There are quite a few literary sources for Greek and Roman Paganism, even more for the Egyptian tradition, and a great wealth of material from India. Anthropologists, in modern times, have supplied us with large amounts of material from all over the world. We most certainly do not lack information.
We also have the stories written down in the Middle Ages by monks. These present both problems and benefits, however. When people in Irish stories swear "by the gods my people swear by," are they repeating an ancient Irish oath, or are they simply saying the sort of thing that the monks figured Pagans would say? We don't know. This sort of reference is inspiring, however; if not in substance, at least in style. Maybe these monks were on to something.
The epigraphic evidence comes from inscriptions on offerings, temple walls, etc. Offerings sometimes have a short prayer inscribed on them that gives the name and intent of the offerer. Inscriptions found on temple walls, especially in Egypt, tend to be particularly rich in information.
Even in areas from which information is otherwise scanty, we find examples. We find them in travelers' reports and late versions of myths. Whether we can rely on these sources has long been debated. I personally treat this type of evidence with suspicion, trusting it only when it is supported by other corroborating evidence. Even if this type of evidence does not accurately reflect the culture it claims to depict, however, it can at least tell us how the culture that recorded the stories and reports saw prayer. And this, in turn, can inspire our own prayers.
Two very different sources of information on ancient Pagan prayer are the local styles of modern prayer and surviving folk customs. Many people think that when Christians pray in a particular way in a particular culture, the practice must come from the pre-Christian days of that culture. There is a tendency on the part of writers, especially neo-Pagan writers, to act as if Christians had no creativity of their own. It is very possible, however, that local prayer styles, no matter how ancient they may seem, were invented by Christians rather than Pagans. This doesn't mean we can't use these styles in our own prayers, of course. Never ignore inspiration. Just don't assume you are following some ancient Pagan tradition when you use this sort of source.
Folk customs often contain prayers and songs. But these can present a similar problem. We can rarely know how much of the customs come from a Pagan culture and how much from other sources. To make the situation worse, sometimes the person who recorded the folk material "improved" it, further obscuring its Pagan roots.
So what is a poor Pagan to do? We must educate ourselves as well as we can, using all the sources we can find. We must look carefully at what has been passed on to us from ancient times, weighing its possible antiquity and Pagan nature carefully. Most important of all, however, we must have an active prayer life. We must ask the gods for guidance on how they wish to be prayed to, and we must listen carefully for their answer. Then we must share the results with our fellow Pagans, so that the stock of prayers we hold in common will grow.
Pagan Prayers and Offerings
Almost all religions pray, and most make offerings. Yet a search through the literature of neo-Paganism turns up only a small number of prayers, and even fewer references to offerings. There is much ritual material, to be sure, but the sort in which the worshipper stands before his gods, addresses them with respect, and offers them gifts is in short supply. Invocations, declarations, and spells are found in great number, but acts of praise and devotion, or simply requests rather than demands for help, are not.
This is a modern development, though. A search through the writings of the ancient Pagans turns up huge quantities of prayers. We have inscriptions left by the ancient Celts. We have many prayers from the Greeks; characters in their tragedies were wont to pray at the drop of a corpse. The most ancient Hindu texts, the four Vedas, are essentially long prayer books. From the Americas, from Asia, from Africa, from Oceania, from Australia, we find more and more prayers, building up higher and higher, until we are crushed beneath the obvious: the most common form of Pagan religious expression is prayer.
Closely allied to prayer is the offering—the second most common form of worship. This makes sense; prayers and offerings are the same thing. They both present gifts to the gods—one of words and time, and the other of objects. Prayers usually accompany offerings, and offerings frequently accompany prayers. A line between them cannot be drawn, and I have not tried to do so. When we come before the gods, it is wise not to come empty-handed. We should come bearing, if not objects, then words; if not words, then objects. And how much better if we bring both!
Why Do We Pray?
The ancients may have prayed and made offerings, but what is the point in this modern day and age?
When we pray, we talk to divine beings. They are our spiritual friends or our parents, or our cousins. We talk to our human friends and parents and cousins, so it only makes sense to talk to their divine counterparts as well.
Why do we need to talk in the first place? Don't the gods already know what we want, or how we feel about them? Let's go back to the human equivalent. Do you talk to your friends, or do you just assume they know how you feel and what you want? Do you send notes to your grandparents thanking them for gifts, or do you figure that they'll understand how thankful you are, even if you don't tell them? If Cousin Harry does something great, do you give him a call and say, "Nice going," or do you decide that his own feeling of self-accomplishment should be enough? Surely the gods deserve at least as much consideration as Cousin Harry!
Maybe the problem is the way you see the divine beings. Our gods are not omniscient. Unlike Santa Claus, they don't see you when you're sleeping, or know when you're awake. They have to be invited into your life. Go on, give them a call and tell them how much you've missed them; tell them how wonderful you think they are; and, while you're at it, maybe ask for a favor or thank them for favors done. You might find you like talking to them.
Why Do We Make Offerings?
While the "why" of prayer may be pretty obvious, the "why" of offerings is a bit harder to see. Why would the gods need, or even want, our gifts? What can a spiritual being do with a bottle of wine or a piece of art?
The various Pagan religions give a variety of reasons for making offerings. Each justifies the practice according to its own theology and social structure. Neo-Pagans, with their lack of coherent theology and without a distinct society, have to review the many reasons given by other traditions to decide which ones are acceptable. When we do this, we may find our beliefs regarding the gods changing. A god we make offerings to is different from a god we don't. Since Paganism is a religion of action rather than belief, this is to be expected. What matters is that we do the right thing.
Why do the gods demand material gifts from us, then? Why are they not satisfied with prayer and a sincere heart? In part it's because there is no sharp line to be drawn between the material and the spiritual. By demanding material offerings, the gods remind us that the material is sacred too.
Offering material gifts also ensures sincerity. Anyone can give words, and anyone can pretend sincerity, but to give something valuable that we own shows we care for the gods at least as much as for our material possessions.
When we make offerings, we take part in the way of nature. For, just as there is a mystery in the natural order of eating and being eaten, so too there is a mystery in the natural dynamic of giving and receiving gifts—not in the sense of "you wash my hands and I'll wash yours," but rather, the same hands that reach out to give also reach out to receive.
We must enter into this reciprocal relationship with the gods in order for them to become active in our lives. They long for this, waiting for us to approach them with gift-laden arms. This is, quite likely, the origin of the sacred nature of hospitality. The gods are the ultimate hosts, inviting us in when we knock. We must be the best of guests, returning their generosity by acting as hosts in turn. It is the bonds of hospitality that tie people together and communicate the truth that they are not so separate after all. Or, it may have been the other way round. Hospitality may have been sacred before the practice of offerings. If so, then the giving of offerings is simply a case of hospitality toward the gods. We invite them into our lives and, as their hosts, we give them gifts.
The "Politics" of Giving
An offering is frequently used to establish a relationship between a worshipper and the gods of a place. Take, for example, the Roman custom of sacrificing to Silvanus, the god of forests, before clearing land. He had to be satisfied, and even invited to stay on the land once the woods were gone.
An offering is an act of completion. So many things come to us from the gods. If we keep them, the flow ends there. By holding tightly to the gifts of the gods, we create an interruption in the natural rhythm of the world, a dead-end into which the universe flows and then stops.
Neo-Pagans, though, are dedicated to the idea of circles and cycles, of things changing and transforming. They believe there are no dead-ends in nature. Even if we hold tightly to our possessions, of course, in the end, we will be cheated. We will die, and they will go to others. The gods will not allow a dead-end to persist; they will not permit interruptions of their cycles.
This is not something we can take comfort in, as we grasp our goods ever more tightly. If we are indeed Pagans, then we must live the way the gods want us to live. While we are alive, we must not be "dead-ends." We must give freely of what we have, to each other and to the gods. When we make offerings, we tell the gods that we know this, and we remind ourselves of it, so we will be less likely to do the wrong thing in the future. Such a wonderful return from so small a gift as a glass of milk, a bowl of grain, a painted stone!
What you give as an offering must be of some value to you and of presumed value to the being you offer it to. I am well aware that there are cultures in which it is considered perfectly appropriate to give symbolic offerings— paper money, for instance. I have always had trouble understanding the logic behind this. Some explain it in this way. The act of offering itself is a gift, intended to arouse an obligation of a return gift. In gift exchanges, it is considered proper for the giver who is higher in station to give the most valuable gift—a form of noblesse oblige. For the giver of the lower order to give generously would be ostentatious, especially if the gift is more valuable than that of the higher being. Since humans are considered to be, by definition, of a much lower order than the gods, the proper offerings for them are insignificant ones.
Some individuals, and indeed entire cultures, have reasoned like this, to the point of saying that the gods are so much greater than us that any real gift we give is too much. This strikes me, however, as too clever by half. A gift with no value is no gift at all. There is no circumstance in which such a gift is appropriate, unless a return gift of no value is desired.
Another explanation is that the gods need only spiritual goods, so they are content with symbolic offerings. This explanation is dangerous. It insults the material realm, making it appear insignificant in relation to the spiritual. It makes offerings meaningless; if the gods desire only symbols, why bother? Why not just pray to them? And if the gift is only a symbol, what does a worthless gift symbolize?
Give to the gods, then, and not of worthless things. Give your best, and know that what the gods give you will always be greater than anything you can give them. You won't insult them by giving them too much.
Do the Pagan Gods Exist?
How we answer this question will determine the types of rituals we perform. In answering the questions "Why do we pray?" and "Why do we make offerings?" I assumed a belief in the gods to which we pray and give gifts. What is not always appreciated is that the reverse is often true. The very acts of praying and offering can arouse beliefs in us. When we pray and make offerings, the response both from the gods and from ourselves may well answer the question of just who and what the gods are. Perhaps out of the writing and use of prayers, a new form of neo-Pagan piety will arise.
Writing neo-Pagan prayers presents special difficulties. The prayers of many religions incorporate mythical themes, either making reference to myths or actually telling them. Although neo-Paganism has embraced many ancient myths, Wicca, the most widespread form of neo-Paganism, has few myths of its own. I have dealt with this in several ways.
First, not all prayers incorporate myths. Nor is it true that all rituals are enactments of myths. Second, there are indeed some Wiccan myths—the most obvious being the Legend of the Descent of the Goddess and the myth of the year implied in Wiccan rituals. Third, there are the myths told about ancient deities. Although not actually absorbed into Wicca, these deities find devotees among neo-Pagans, who might therefore be expected to be interested in prayers to their favorite deities.
In this book, I have also taken elements that are found in a number of myths and applied them to the Wiccan God and Goddess. Essentially, what I am doing here is writing new myths for Wicca. I think it best to be honest about this. Although Wiccans may draw inspiration from many myths, Wicca, as such, is myth-impoverished. A minor goal of this book is to show how that can be corrected.
Of course, the divine beings to whom these prayers are addressed are not just the Wiccan God and Goddess. Worshippers from many of the modern Pagan religions will find prayers to their deities here. I hope that those who encounter deities from traditions other than their own will be inspired to pull out some mythology books and learn more. Learning is never a waste of time.
To Whom Do We Pray?
There are three types of beings Pagans pray to: the High Gods, the Ancestors, and the spirits.
The High Gods fall into two categories: the God and Goddess of Wicca (the archetypal male and female) and the gods of the ancient Pagan pantheons—Brighid, Mithras, Isis, and so on. I obviously couldn't write prayers to all of the ancient deities, so, instead, I wrote prayers to those who appealed to me personally. There is a short Glossary of these deities in Appendix II. Maybe one you've never heard of before will strike your fancy. Pagans usually have a special deity that they are particularly attracted to (you can't worship an infinite number of deities in any practical sense). This deity is called their patron deity.
The Ancestors may either be those of a particular family or those of us all—a genetic ancestor or a cultural one. For instance, George Washington has no genetic descendants, but he is a cultural ancestor of all Americans. When I use the term "Ancestors," I usually mean genetic ancestors, but there are always cultural implications as well. After all, we are, in the end, one family.
The spirits are a miscellaneous category identified primarily by their limits. Instead of being the gods of a people, they are peculiar to a locale or an object. They may be associated with a tool or a weapon, or they may be connected with a place. You may wish to pray to the spirit who inhabits an impressive tree near your house, or those who live in the woods you visit on a camping trip.
Let me illustrate the differences between the High Gods and the spirits with an example. One of the early Norse settlers in Iceland was a worshipper of Thor. When he emigrated, he took with him the pillar from his temple. As he approached the coast, he threw the pillar overboard and allowed it to float to the shore. In this way, Thor himself chose the settler's landing spot. As a High God, Thor came to the new land with his worshippers.
The Land Spirits, on the other hand, had been left behind to dwell in the places with which they were associated. In the new land, the Norse discovered new holy places and established relationships with the spirits of these new shrines. They had left behind the spirits who lived in the burial mounds, stones, and forests of their old home, so they sought out those who lived in their new one.
Excerpted from BOOK OF PAGAN PRAYER by Ceisiwr Serith. Copyright © 2002 Ceisiwr Serith. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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